The Sun King by Nancy Mitford (audio, narrated by Charlton Griffin)

April 2, 2013 § Leave a comment

Earlier this month I was invited by Trevor of the Mookse and the Gripes to be a guest on Episode 6 of his (and his brother Brian’s) monthly podcast.  The book under discussion:  The NYRB Classics edition of The Sun King by Nancy Mitford.

To begin with – I am fascinated by the Mitfords.  Something you may have caught on to if you listened in on the podcast.  Six sisters, and none of them boring.  One was a brilliant writer; two Fascists; one a Communist (and muckraker-journalist); one married & divorced a scientist/millionaire playboy and then went on to live openly (and much more happily) with her female partner; and one became a duchess.  It does sound a bit like a twisted nursery rhyme. 

The Mitford are something of an industry in (and out of) the UK.  All six were beautiful, witty, fashionable and remarkably unpleasant based on what they reveal in their letters to each other.   And while I’d most likely have hated them if we’d ever met, from a distance they glimmer with a kind of faerie glamor.  They are the Kardashians of the London Blitz – only more intellectual and interesting.

Nancy Mitford, the eldest, was a talented novelist and (I learned upon reading this book) biographer.  Prior to The Sun King I’m embarrassed to admit to being familiar only with her novels and short stories.  The most famous are the Fanny Wincham née Logan stories – The Pursuit of Love, Love in a Cold Climate and Don’t Tell Alfred!  Fanny, who narrates, was based on a Mitford cousin.  In fact, any reader familiar with the Mitford’s will recognize several of the characters.  And, be warned, most readers quickly become familiar with the family history.  It’s difficult to avoid it.  The stories are packed with auto-biographical references, which in turn further contributes to the Mitford mystique – something I’ve read that the surviving sisters were very aware of.  There is an incestuous relationship between biography and fiction in everything Nancy wrote.  The fact is that nothing is ever quite as fascinating to a Mitford as a Mitford.

Vanity aside, the books are ridiculously entertaining.  I frequently recommend Nancy Mitford novels to friends who enjoy Jane Austen, BBC costume dramas and Wodehouse.

And now I can begin recommending the biographies as well.  The Sun King is written in the same irreverent tone with which the author approached her fiction.   “Scandalous” is an adjective that frequently comes to mind.  There is a definite tabloid quality in how she tells the stories of Louis XIV’s many mistresses, the fates of his children (legitimate and not) and the vying for the King’s favor amongst the nobles of the French court.  The wars fought during his reign, the Spanish throne (which was filled by Louis’ grandson, Philip V of Spain), the revocation of the Edict of of Nantes and the subsequent violent persecution of Protestants – all of this is secondary in importance to the scandals of Versailles.* 

Mitford often breezes past important historical events, focussing instead on witty little anecdotes and one liners that would make a Hollywood action scriptwriter drool.  For example, regarding the King’s frequent change of mistresses – “the Marquise de Maintenon, meeting the Marquise de Montespan on the Queen’s staircase, remarked in her dry way: ‘You are going down, Madame? I am going up.’ ”

Sharp, witty, a little mean – these are Nancy Mitford hallmarks.  And she doesn’t disappoint here, delivering acidic observations starting on page one. “Louis XIV fell in love with Versailles and Louise de La Vallière at the same time; Versailles was the love of his life.”  

What makes this biography successful is the authorial voice – so recognizable to those of us who love the novels.  And let’s be honest, few people are going to pick up The Sun King strictly for the history (which even Philip Mansel in the introduction admits is sketchy in places). Much more thorough books exist on this subject.  But that doesn’t make what history it does discuss any less fascinating.  And, in the hands Mitford, any less entertaining.  Quite the opposite.

The audio edition of The Sun King, published by The NYRB Classics and narrated by Charlton Griffin is a wonderful listen.  The hours fly by, with Griffin using just the right tone and keeping with the overall gossipy feel of the author’s prose.  And I’m sure reading the print edition – on a lazy Sunday afternoon at home or poolside on vacation – would be just as enjoyable.  And added bonus:  The Sun King also works as a gateway to heavier, more scholarly tomes on the subject.  It’s a wonderful, relaxing way to pass a few hours.  And, when it’s done, you can’t help but think: how VERY Mitford it all was.

To listen to Trevor, Brian & my discussion of The Sun King follow the link to The Mookse & The Gripes Podcast, Episode 6.

Publisher:  The NYRB Classics, New York (2013)
ISBN:  978 1 590 17491 3

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*In contrast to the girl’s school set up by Louis’ second wife, which Mitford devotes pages & pages to.

Must You Go, My Life with Harold Pinter by Antonia Fraser (audiobook)

December 21, 2012 § Leave a comment

Must You GoIf there’s one thing you walk away with after reading Antonia Fraser’s memoir Must You Go, My Life with Harold Pinter, it’s that she and her second husband Harold Pinter were deeply in love.  Reading a memoir that doesn’t focus exclusively on tribulations its author has overcome is refreshing.  Remarkable, even.  Fraser has chosen to share what appears to be the happiest period of her life.  And in the process proves Tolstoy wrong.

At a party in 1975 Antonia Fraser was involved in a conversation that included the playwright Harold Pinter.  She was taking her leave when Pinter turned to her and asked “Must you go?”.  And there it began.  Both parties were married – Antonia with six children.  The affair continued until 1977, when she divorced her first husband in the amicable manner that seemed to be the defining characteristic of their marriage.  Pinter’s separation from his wife, the actress Vivien Merchant, was less amicable.  The British tabloids had a field day and Merchant refused to sign the divorce papers until 1980.  Fraser and Pinter married that same year and lived happily together until his death of cancer in 2008.

This 35 year period is told to us through excerpts of Fraser’s journals with some narrative explanation.  She appears to be a rabid diarist – never missing a day.  Which is funny when you consider that she’s a biographer by profession, accustomed to perusing her subjects’ diaries, letters and papers in the course of her research.  The entries that make up the book are not so much stream-of-conscious ramblings or emotional outpourings as they are concise cataloging of the day’s most interesting events.   Fortunately Pinter and Fraser lived interesting lives and knew interesting people – so most of their days together are worth re-visiting.  The name dropping that takes place on these pages is almost shameful!  Jackie-O, Salman Rushdie, Samuel Beckett, Philip Roth… the list of literati seems never-ending.  But her commentary is never salacious.  These were the circles the couple traveled in, and as you read you get the sense that Dame Fraser would never commit the impolitesse of gossiping about friends.

I really enjoyed Must You Go, as I have every book I’ve ever read by Antonia Fraser.  It may not be for everyone, though.  One Goodreads reviewer negatively compared Must You Go to “reading a daytimer”, and to be fair the description isn’t far off.  It is this gift of brevity – Antonia Fraser’s ability to capture a moment in a deftly executed prose sketch – that makes her memoir so charming.  Little jokes, witty descriptions, notes left on the pages by Pinter (which she welcomed) – it is the description of a full life encapsulated in a few lines a day.  Fraser had the sense not to overwork the prose, or expand too much on the things her audience already knew. At times her admiration of Pinter seems almost worshipful, but the book was published 2 years after his death.  Her loss is fresh.  She obviously misses him.  Equally obvious is her happiness in remembering.

Is it a complete picture?  Probably not.  But Must You Go is a glimpse into their private world.  Fraser has every right to choose what she shares.

The audio version, which is what I listened to, is narrated by the incomparable Sandra Duncan.  Her inflections are flawless.  The 11 hours and 14 minutes moved by quickly, the only off note being the choice made to have the poetry by Harold Pinter which is referenced throughout voiced by a man.  Whether it would have flowed so well or been so entertaining to read in book form, I’m not sure.  I tend to think it would be.  Yet there was something delightfully intimate about hearing it read (it’s written in the first person) as if Fraser was relating the stories over tea.  In fact, I intend to avoid interviews given by the real Antonia Fraser.  If her true voice differs too much from Duncan’s I’ll be devastated.

AudioBook Publisher:  Whole Story AudioBooks, Leicestershire (2010)
ISBN:  978 1 409 11523 6 or through Audibles.com

Print Book Publisher:  Nan A. Talese, New York (2010)
ISBN:  978 0 385 53250 1

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HHhH by Laurent Binet (translated from the French by Sam Taylor, audio narrated by John Lee)

September 23, 2012 § 2 Comments

HHhH is the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman award winning novel which tells the story of Operation Anthropoid:  the secret WWII mission to assassinate SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Tristan Eugen Heydrich.

Heydrich was Nazi Germany’s golden child.  Chief among his many accomplishments was the development “the final solution to the Jewish question” – which he helped conceive and present to Nazi leaders at the infamous Wannsee Conference of 1942.  He is arguably the father of the Holocaust.  At the time of his death he was also the Reichsprotektor of the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia – Hitler’s man on the ground in those two occupied countries.  If Laurent Binet is to be belived, and I see no reason he shouldn’t, many thought Heydrich would one day replace Hitler himself.  He was the monster even the monsters feared,  nicknamed “the man with the iron heart”, “The Butcher of Prague”, and “the blond beast”.   Heydrich served directly under Himmler, and the book’s title: HHhH is an acronym for a popular German saying of the time.  Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich, or Himmler’s brain is called Heydrich.

His would be assassins, Jozef Gabčík and Jan Kubiš are more obscure. A Czech and a Slovak, soldiers sent from England by the Czech government in exile, they were tasked to kill Heydrich and to establish among the Allied Forces that the Czech Resistance has teeth.  In comparison to Heydrich very little seems to be known about these two men, or of the dozens of others in the Prague Underground who assisted them in their mission.  The recounting of their mission is a harrowing, heroic, and frequently touching wartime adventure.  It has all the elements you’d expect – acts of courage and cowardice, daring escapes, heroic last stands, camaraderie and betrayal.

Laurent Binet has woven a metafiction into his novel, placing himself squarely between the reader and events.  His narrator relays a scene and then stops, correcting himself and revising, speaking directly to the reader of the difficulties he’s encountering.  Then he jumps forward in time to explain what will eventually happen to some key characters.  He takes all kinds of licenses – imposing psychological traits, describing Heydrich’s voice as distinctively and comically high-pitched (something I found too good to be true – which it apparently is), imagining scenes that could never have been witnessed and so perhaps never happened.  Or explaining that if they did happen, they were completely different from what he describes. By using what is basically a literary affectation, Binet creates complete transparency.  HHhH becomes as much a commentary on the act of writing non-fiction as it is a description of Operation Anthropoid (Binet is the son of a historian).

Binet tells his readers what is true, what might be true and what is patently false.  Adeptly he draws back the curtain on the  scenes he’s made-up for narrative expediency, never breaking stride or missing a beat.  The prose is surprisingly unified and fluid.  The actual story is surprisingly heart-wrenching.  I write “surprisingly” because with all Binet’s narrative breaks and insertions, the interruptions and explanations, the complete opposite should be the true.    Until the final scene, and in contrast to most works of historical fiction, we are kept outside of events.  Yet, Binet’s writing is so masterful that his peculiar choice of narrative seems the only way to properly tell the story of Operation Anthropoid.  Any other way suddenly appears melodramatic and contrived in contrast (something Binet reinforces by mentioning books and films which predate HHhH).

And, without giving too much away, that last scene I mentioned – when we are finally allowed within the frame of the story –  is perhaps one of the most beautiful pieces of prose written this year.  Even listening to it on audio doesn’t detract from its power.   It is suffused with light and emotion.  Brilliant (to invoke an adjective I freely admit to overusing) in every sense of the word.  That last scene is a culmination of everything – every chapter, every literary trick and artifice – Binet has employed throughout the pages that precede it.

HHhH is a thrilling WWII tale, a precocious first novel and (I’m calling it!) a future classic of French literature.  Personally, I’ve not one piece of negative criticism.  I expect it to (and will cry foul if it doesn’t) win all the translated novel awards this year.  Sam Taylor has created a subtle and nuanced translation.  That may seem a bold claim from someone who doesn’t speak the source language, but even a non-French speaker can see the challenges this novel poses.  There is precision in the plotting and intent which could have been all too easily lost or muddied.   There is a constant shifting in perspective and, subsequently, in style.  John Lee has done an equally fine job with the audio.  Particularly in voicing the narrator’s asides, which he’s given just the right inflection of wry banter.  I’m pleased to write that Farrar, Straus and Giroux, true to form, accorded HHhH all the attention and talent it deserves.  I even love the cover art.

Publisher:     Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York (2012)
ISBN:  978 0 374169 91 6

Half-Blood Blues by Esi Edugyan (Audio)

June 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

It may seem redundant to post a review after taking part in The Readers Summer Book Club discussion of Half-Blood Blues, but I decided to do just that.  Mainly to share my *spoiler free* thoughts on Esi Edugyan’s novel with readers who still haven’t read the book and needed a bit of a nudge.   If you enjoy history and are looking for a good beach read – one with more depth than your average Summer paperback –  then this is probably the novel for you.

Half-Blood Blues initially interested me because of the setting and subject matter.  It’s a Jazz novel set in 1940’s Berlin & Paris. Sid, the narrator of Half-Blood Blues was the bass player for the jazz band The Hot-Time Swingers.  A combo made up of Americans and Germans, they took Berlin by storm in the 30’s.  Sid and his best friend Chip – a drummer who will later rise to stardom as one of the foremost jazz musicians of his generation – have been playing music together since their shared childhood in Baltimore.  Their relationship is one of the most intriguing aspects of the novel.  While neither man is a saint, their commitment to each other and longtime friendship puts a likeable polish on both characters. (I’d go so far to say that the most sympathetic component of each man is his relationship with the other).

When the book opens Chip, now in his 80’s, is trying to convince Sid to attend a festival celebrating their late friend and band mate Hieronymus ‘Hero’ Falk.  Falk was a gifted, Afro-German trumpet player whose reputation (in the vein of  Robert Johnson’s) rests on just a few recordings.  Both Chip & Sid were interviewed for a documentary on Falk’s life.  Both men were a part of the legendary recording of Half-Blood Blues, a disc which only survived because Sid snuck it out of their recording session before it was destroyed. Both men escaped Hitler’s Berlin and Nazi occupied Paris, while Hero did not.  Sid develops into a tragic character who may or may not have committed a despicable act and then compounded it with a terrible lie.  Chip stays reassuringly consistent throughout, a boy who Sid’s mother once described as having “no light” in his eyes.

Edugyan alternates timelines – jumping forward to Sid & Chip’s modern day pilgrimage to Berlin for the festival and then back to the events of 1940.  Sid narrates, by turns brutally honest and suspiciously unreliable. His story is full of red herrings, shocking reveals, suspense, betrayal, nail-digging-ly slow pacing and one of the most beautifully written endings I’ve ever encountered.  It’s written in a voice laden with slang and Southern dialectic tics that reminded me of the work of Zora Neale Hurston.  On almost all levels Half-Blood Blues is an engaging and satisfying Summer read – falling somewhere between the categories of literary and genre fiction.

It’s not without its flaws.  Among the disappointments of this Booker nominated novel is  Edugyan’s decisions regarding how far to take the historical component.  To my mind not far enough.  The Hot-Time Swingers consisted of an Aryan German, a Jewish piano player, the African-Americans Chip and Sid (we’re told Sid could ‘pass’ for white & Chip could not) and Hero – an Afro German.   Keep in mind that the jazz scene in Berlin and Paris was HUGE prior to the Nazi crackdown (Check out the album Hot Club de France which collects some of the best recordings of that period).  The band’s manager is a member of the German elite, from a family of Fascists, a young man who turned his back on his family’s values and sacrificed everything for the love of jazz.  While their stories are here to greater and lesser extent, the sense of time and place wasn’t strong enough for me.  I never felt immersed in either city – Berlin or Paris.  Other critics have expressed that they’d like to have seen the history of Afro Germans more fully explored.  I agree.  The reasons I believe readers come to this novel – the history & the music – take a back seat in the book’s middle where Edugyan focuses on a strange and frustratingly juvenile love triangle which develops between Sid, Hero and a woman named Delilah (Louis Armstrong’s protegé and singer).

While I enjoyed Esi Edugyan writing, I’m not as enthusiastic about her plotting.  Without revealing spoilers I’ll just say that the two pivotal plot points – the ones on which the entire novel’s motivations are based – are inauthentic.  They don’t make sense.  It was as if they were inserted as a matter of convenience.  As a means for the writer to get to where she wanted to go, rather than carefully placed components of a well thought out narrative.  As I’ve already said:  I still enjoyed Half-Blood Blues and would recommend it for an entertaining Summer read.  But it fell short of the expectations I have for a novel that’s been shortlisted for an award as prestigious as the Man Booker (regardless how quirky the year’s list).

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (2012)
Time:  11 hours, 12 minutes

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Simon Vance reads Brings Up the Bodies

May 25, 2012 § 1 Comment

Was my rave review of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall sequel enough to pique you interest?  Or, interest piqued,  could you possibly be on a book-buying-ban, attempting to make a dent in that teetering TBR stack on the bedside table? Maybe you never finished Wolf Hall (which, by the way, isn’t necessary to enjoy the sequel).  Or do you think historical fiction just isn’t your thing?  *sigh* There could be 99 reasons why you might delay reading Bring Up the Bodies.

Well.  Finding the time to read ain’t one. :-)

Macmillan Audio has released the audiobook of Hilary Mantel’s Bring Up the Bodies – read by none other than Simon “Golden Voice” Vance (a.k.a – Booklist’s “Voice of Choice”).  He is so delightfully and authentically British that you’ll want to pinch his cheeks and offer him a scone.

Below is an excerpt of Simon reading from the opening pages.  All you need to do is click on the link, relax and let those dulcet tones wash over you.

Audio from Bring Up The Bodies

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